GDS Holds off on Popular Vaccine Requirement to Avoid Complications

Photo by Reid Alexander.

About two thirds of all GDS students are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, and increasing numbers of them have taken that opportunity. But the school has decided not to require vaccinations, at least until the shots receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration or are mandated by a government agency.

As universities and independent schools across the country announce that they will be requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for in-person attendance during the 2021-2022 academic year, GDS is waiting for guidance from the D.C. Department of Health and education and public-health organizations such as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. 

Head of School Russell Shaw told the Bit, “Our current position is to strongly encourage all students who are eligible to be vaccinated. When the vaccines get full FDA approval, we may then switch to a requirement.” The policy for GDS staff is the same.

Sophomore Daniel Ford said he “would probably feel safer” if GDS instituted a vaccine requirement.

Director of Strategic Programs Vinita Ahuja, who has managed much of GDS’ response to the pandemic, said the school is allowed to require vaccinations, but “it’s a little bit legally tricky.” For example, GDS would have to provide exemptions for those with certain religious beliefs or medical conditions. GDS does not currently enforce vaccination requirements beyond those that the D.C. Department of Health requires, all of which are fully authorized by the FDA.

“What we believe to be true is that the vast majority of eligible students and staff have made the decision to be vaccinated, irrespective of the requirement,” Shaw said. GDS may eventually reach its goal of having up to 90 percent of students vaccinated without formally requiring vaccines. The school’s current numbers suggest over half of high school students are vaccinated.

The six high school students interviewed by the Bit overwhelmingly believe that, for safety reasons, GDS should require eligible students to get vaccinated before coming to school in the fall. All were fully or partly vaccinated.

“It’s important for everyone’s safety and the safety of family members and people at risk for everyone to be vaccinated,” junior Nate Rubin said. “It will lead to a more normal school year.” 

According to high school nurse Connie Crowley, 272 GDS students and 195 school employees had uploaded images of their completed vaccination cards to the Magnus Health portal as of June 5. It is likely that actual vaccination numbers are higher than those statistics, which don’t include people who are partly vaccinated and or those who have not uploaded their cards.

Freshman Samia Greene expressed hesitation about a vaccination requirement due to their unknown long-term effects. But, she added, “If you don’t want it, don’t get it. Just don’t come to school and put other people in danger.” 

As more people get vaccinated and cases in the D.C. area drop, it is possible that GDS will remove certain COVID-19 protocols in the fall. “The trends are obviously very encouraging,” Shaw said, “and should we continue to see those trends in the area over the summer, that bodes well for the ’21-’22 school year. Already, we are excited that students will be back five full days of school a week, and we hope to be able to resume more normal activities.”

GDS has already changed its testing protocols for those who are fully vaccinated. Ahuja said that the testing program will be set up differently next year, with the majority of testing happening after breaks, including for vaccinated community members. 

Ahuja added that “we don’t want to create a kind of second-class citizenship for people who are not vaccinated, and at the same time for our school’s community health, getting vaccinated is very important.”

Because vaccine eligibility differs based on age group, GDS may have to change restrictions by division. Ahuja said the school will “probably look for 85 to 90 percent of a division” to be vaccinated before changing safety protocols. “We don’t have that yet, but we are hoping we’ll have that by the time we get back to school,” she said.

In addition, Ahuja said, GDS is required to follow COVID-safety rules set by D.C. government agencies. Until the agencies loosen mask requirements for schools, she said, “our hands are kind of tied.”

Shaw said he has heard that younger students in the lower school may be able to get vaccinated in the fall. “So it is entirely possible that things will change during the course of the school year,” he said. 

Freshman Clara Wartell said she would support a vaccination requirement and urged her fellow students not to wait. “Get vaccinated. It’s not that hard,” she said. Wartell also noted that it may be hard to enforce masking for unvaccinated students if those who are vaccinated are allowed to remove their masks. 

“The sooner we get most of our community vaccinated,” Ahuja said, “the sooner we get back to normal, the sooner we can allow parents back in the buildings, the sooner we can take masks off, the sooner we can get rid of distancing.”